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Remarks at SOUTHCOM Change of Command

Ladies and gentlemen, excellencies, Congressman Hunter, members of the SOUTHCOM team, the entire team, friends and family, it’s a privilege to be here as we honor these two great Americans and their families. And to all of the men and women of SOUTHCOM and all of the men and women who serve this great nation, thank you for the critical work you do everywhere.

Now, here at SOUTHCOM, we count on you to be there when it matters most, responding to natural disasters, preparing for contingencies, confronting criminal networks and disrupting their trade in drugs and human lives.  You work with partner nations to promote the rule of law and democratic principles, and help to strengthen professional, accountable militaries that respect human rights.

In short, the men and women of SOUTHCOM continue to provide the people of the United States and our neighbors a chance to live in peace, to dream their dreams, to live full lives.  And even as SOUTHCOM has been challenged to achieve more with less, never have the men and women of this command performed with greater excellence. 

Their accomplishments have come under the exceptional leadership of my friend General John Kelly over the last three years.  John has spent more than four decades of dedicated, principled, honored and skilled service as a United States Marine.  More than four decades of supporting peace and freedom for countless men and women he will never know, and may never meet.  More than four decades of building a legacy of leadership and integrity among the men and women under his command.

By the way, I’m about to say much about John Kelly. It’s from personal knowledge – working beside him, with him – sometimes it seemed for him, when he was Senior Military Advisor to the Secretary of Defense.

Across our military, John is famous for his ability to relate to troops and civilians alike, drawing from the depth and breadth of his own experience.  He can captivate an audience in the best traditions of the Boston Irish; in an instant, he can tailor his stories, many of which are actually true, to suit someone’s personality or stage in life. 

Most importantly, he has always taken the time to understand what matters most: our people.  He takes the time to appreciate what matters to them; what they aspire to achieve, and what unique contribution he can make in their lives as a leader.  That’s part of why people trust John, why they are so loyal to John … why they want to be led by John.

Certainly, General Kelly’s path to service was out of the ordinary, but then again, so was his extraordinary career.  John came of age during a turbulent time of change and transformation.  And it would be hard to find another recruit to our military who had seen so much of the world before he served; who traveled the Pacific for two years as a merchant marine; who hitchhiked from Boston to Washington State, but found it more interesting to travel industrial rail lines to find his way back home.

Wherever he has traveled, from the streets of Brighton, and yes, even through Haight-Ashbury in its hey-day, General Kelly has been comfortable in the world and confident in his convictions.  His commitment to service and duty, courage and country, have always been at his core.

So when John’s mother called in 1970, letting him know that his draft number was about to come up, he decided he would serve in the best way he knew how:  He joined the Marines.  And there are two leaders with us today, General Kelly and General Dunford, who might tell you this was the only way to serve for any self-respecting Irish-Catholic from Boston.    

John completed his two year enlistment as a Sergeant, which was no small feat.  It was a time where he learned the awesome responsibility of leadership, lessons that remained with him through three combat tours in Iraq, and multiple command assignments across the world.  He learned what it means to ask young people to enter extreme danger to accomplish the mission.  And he learned that behind every Marine there is a family serving alongside them – spouses, children, parents, siblings. Watching. Waiting. Semper Fidelis.  

John, you and Karen know what it means to watch and wait.  And for so many other families, your strength, experience, and counsel are an inspiration.

Few can describe service and sacrifice more eloquently and passionately than John.  Few have a deeper appreciation for the magnificence of the young people who step forward to serve our country.  John, as you once said about those under your command: “These were good and decent young men and women who every day, performed remarkable and most often unsung acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they decided was bigger and more important than themselves.”  

Throughout your career, you have recognized that cause, lived for that cause, fought for that cause.  You have conducted yourself as a Marine.  Our force, and our nation, is far stronger because of you, your family, and your legacy.  John, on behalf of the Department of Defense, thank you.

John, as you transition from this command, you do so with a knowledge that the men and women of SOUTHCOM are in the good hands of another principled leader from another remarkable family: Admiral Kurt Tidd.

The Admiral Tidd who becomes SOUTHCOM Commander today is in fact the third Admiral Tidd in the United States’ Navy’s history.  In fact, Kurt has said the sights, smells, and sounds aboard his father’s destroyer are his first memories as a child.  From the moment Kurt first saw Midshipmen marching in formation across the Academy grounds, he knew where he wanted to go.  He knew who he wanted to be. Certainly, his father’s record of service left an indelible imprint on our country and most of all, on two sons who became Admirals too.

Admiral Tidd may have one of the most distinguished pedigrees in our Navy, but I have seen firsthand that he is never afraid to roll up his sleeves and get grease under his nails.  Then-Secretary Gates was convinced, as was I as his acquisition chief at the time, which was some years ago now, that the Pentagon bureaucracy was not responsive enough, nor rapid enough, in equipping our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with capabilities like MRAPs and ISR.

And he and Chairman Mullen gave me and Kurt the job of making sure the Pentagon was at war and not just the troops. So in those days, Admiral Tidd and I travelled together to lots of austere forward operating bases and combat outposts, assessing the urgent needs and managing their fulfillment. Hot meals, and even beds, were few in those days. Kurt reveled in it. He enjoyed it so much that I often wondered whether he missed his calling as a Marine. But he was effective: his work saved lives and ensured mission success.

In fact, Kurt is the classic case of someone who can, as the poem goes, “walk with Kings but never lose the common touch.”  This combination of qualities made him such an effective advisor over the past two years, supporting the Secretary of State as Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on diplomatic visits across the world.  Across 600,000 miles and through dozens of arduous negotiations Admiral Tidd served as an indispensable link between American defense and diplomacy.   

From his earlier service in the Gulf and leadership in naval combat operations, Kurt also understands the language of coalition operations.  He clearly appreciates the conversation between countries, cultures, and peoples that SOUTHCOM has cultivated for much of the last century. These insights will remain vital as we work with Latin American and Caribbean partners at this critical juncture in our hemisphere’s history -- a moment filled with opportunity.

Today, the area of SOUTHCOM’s responsibility is a zone of peace and rising prosperity.  Nations from Colombia, to Chile, to Brazil are global exporters of security.  Colombia, in particular, holds special promise.  Thanks to the sacrifices of the Colombian people, Colombia now stands on the brink of a historic peace.  And as they did during their most difficult times, the people of SOUTHCOM will continue to stand with our Colombian friends as they reach for days of even greater possibility.       

So we take great confidence in this hemisphere’s future, even as we remain focused on what further progress requires.  We simply cannot tolerate the activities of criminal organizations who poison so many communities across the Americas.  Whether they traffic in narcotics, human lives, or extremist ideology, these criminal networks are threats to us all.  As General Kelly’s determined efforts with our partners made clear, these groups should find no shelter in this hemisphere.  I know Admiral Tidd shares this steadfast commitment and he will carry it forward with characteristic excellence and resolve. Both General Kelly and Admiral Tidd understand America’s unique ability to galvanize and lead global coalitions.  They understand the attractive power of the values that America and so many around the world share together, and they have dedicated their lives to ensuring the power of our example grows stronger.  

Admiral Tidd is now called upon to do so once again, pursuing many efforts, including our efforts to bring the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a responsible close. I believe, along with the President, that doing so would benefit our national security and have so stated since I took office. But not everyone in GTMO can be safely transferred to another country, so we need an alternative. I have therefore framed for the President a proposal to establish an alternative location. That plan will propose bringing those detainees to an appropriate, secure location in the United States. 

Congress has indicated a willingness to consider such a proposal. While we work with Congress on a way forward, we will continue to transfer Guantanamo detainees to other countries when and as we have mitigated any security risk to the United States. Just last night, after a deliberate and careful review, we completed the transfer of 10 Yemenis – roughly ten percent of the total remaining Gitmo population – to the government of Oman. That brings the population to 93. 

Like every transfer that came before it, the decision to transfer these detainees happened only after a thorough review by me and other senior security officials of our government.  As we work diligently to close this chapter in our history, we will continue to – and I believe in this strongly, strongly – to value and support the professionalism and the dignity of the men and women of SOUTHCOM who carry out what is an exceedingly difficult mission. 

Today, as we mark this change of command at SOUTHCOM, between two distinguished Naval officers, between two proven statesman, and two coalition-builders, we also celebrate a remarkable continuity.  Both General Kelly and Admiral Tidd are a perfect fit for SOUTHCOM, a command where our partners matter so much and partnerships run so deep. 

In this hemisphere and beyond, none of us knows when a crisis may arise.  We cannot predict where the magnificent men and women of SOUTHCOM will be called to save lives, defend our nation, or respond with our partners.  But we do know this:  We know Admiral Tidd will lead this team with certainty, clarity, and with the total confidence of me and the President.  

We know the force he inherits is ready for the future thanks to the determined efforts of General Kelly.  And we know that SOUTHCOM will continue to strengthen our bonds across the Americas, as together, we shape a shared future, one that is both more prosperous and more secure for all our citizens.